You just slaved away in the kitchen yet again, motived by your love and desire to take care of your child, ensuring they are properly nourished. You proudly bring out one of your favorite dishes, only to find your child is unwilling to even try it! “I want a cookie!” Emily exclaims, folding her arms and furrowing her brow, glaring down at her plate in disgust. After several failed attempts of assuring her that she can have a cookie after finishing her dinner, you finally relent, and let her pick out the dessert of her choice…right?
No – you don’t have to give up! Rather than catering to your child’s picky palette, you can play strategically instead, capitalizing on the things they do like. Here are a few ways you can get started!
- You're not a short-order cook.
Though it’s okay to ask for requests occasionally, as a rule, tell your kids “this is what’s for dinner.” Let them know that it’s fine if they don’t like it, but there isn’t anything else to eat. Then, they can decide if they want to eat the food that’s been put in front of them, or wait for the next opportunity. On the other hand, do your best do keep their taste buds in mind, and keep a list of their favorites to work into your rotation, so they know you are rooting for them.
Check out the book, Guide to Your Child’s Nutrition, which contains some encouragement for timid parents, searching for confidence to put this rule into practice: "Children will not become ill or suffer permanently if they refuse a meal or two, but parents sometimes act as though youngsters might shrivel up and die.” If you have been giving your little diner alternative entrees on a regular basis – take heart, and know that a little tough love may be the best thing for them.
- Spice things up a bit.
While kids have delicate taste buds, don’t feel obligated to only give them macaroni and cheese and pizza because that’s all the ask for. Other than trying to stay away from overly spicy food, foods with sharp flavors like blue cheese, or weird textures, you can essentially cook most of the meals you already love! Things like a little garlic or mild herbs can go a long way to enhance a variety of dishes, which you may be surprised your little ones grow to love!
- Sell those veggies!
This food group is traditionally a mom's biggest hurdle, and it's easy to understand why: vegetables typically consist of nothing more than a side dish that is good for you, dumped alongside much tastier things. No wonder getting kids to eat them requires begging and threats, tactics that quickly backfire. Because once your kids realize that you really, really want them to eat vegetables, refusing to do so becomes a power struggle that they will always win.
One option: integrate vegetables into your main dishes, such as broccoli casseroles and zucchini patties.
Another trick: On the nights that you serve vegetables as a side dish, serve table first, when your kids are the hungriest. Usually they’ll be scarfed down by the time the rest of the meal arrives.
- Eat dinner together.
Perhaps you have seen all the research: kids who eat dinner with their parents have healthier diets, better vocabularies, get better grades, etc. I'm not going to guilt-trip you about needing to do it every night. But do try to pull it off when you can. And be realistic with your expectations. Little guys simply can't sit at a dinner table for very long. A toddler may last only five minutes, and 15 minutes from a 4-year-old is a very good thing.
Side note: keep your children looking forward to mealtime, rather than making it seem like a chore they are forced to complete. For example, when children wish to be excused, they like to hang around the table, playing with their toys, and distracting the other kids. Try implementing this rule: if the child wants to leave, he has to go into another room and entertain himself. Chances are, then child just wants your company, and will end up staying in his seat.
- Just try one bite.
If what your child tastes truly makes them gag, don’t make them finish. Like most people, I have vivid childhood memories of being forced to eat foods that turned my stomach – and no one wants to subject their kids to that. It is also fairly easy to distinguish the difference between authentic revulsion and mere pickiness, so no need to fret letting them off the hook to easily. When your child shows genuine nausea, quickly praise them for trying, and let them know they don’t have to finish.
- When all else fails, use "strategic" bribery.
As your kids become more open-minded to your cuisine, there will still be days they just plain don’t want to eat. Remember that eating something they don’t like not only won’t torture them, it will also build their character. Here are a few age-old tricks for when your kids start acting stubborn and sulky:
- No dessert if you don't eat a fair amount of dinner.
- No seconds until you try a little of everything—but then seconds can be whatever part of the meal you like most.
- Or, the most mysteriously effective one of all, "I see you're not eating your chicken. Mind if I give it to your brother?" at which point, some inexplicable competitive urge kicks in, and the petulant child turns into a food-eating dynamo and polishes off everything on his plate.
- Save room for dessert.
Ice cream often tastes better than anything on the planet. Life has its share of sweetness and serendipity, and mealtime should, too.
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